It’s an emotionally difficult thing to do, but I want to share my very personal story about losing our son, Joen, who passed away at 24 weeks during my pregnancy. I’m doing this in hopes of honouring his memory and letting people in to see a glimpse of the kind love we had and will continue to have for him. This is also the same story where I became a Mom, which is something I am so proud of. It’s not the most eloquently written, but these are my words and this is my story of love, sorrow and heartbreak. Joen is a blessing to James and I, as he made us parents and has taught us what it feels like to love unconditionally. We will always be connected and tied to him, and his memory will be forever imprinted in our hearts. We love you, Joen.
January 30, 2020
As I sit here writing this at BC Women’s Hospital in Vancouver, BC, it’s 3:26pm on Thursday January 30. I’ve been here since 10:30am, I have an IV inserted in me, and I have been given my first dose of misoprostol. I have to keep reminding myself that this is not a dream; our baby boy Joen has passed away and I have to be induced into labour to give birth to him.
Just a few days ago, I was entering my 24th week, or 6th month of my pregnancy and James and I thought we were well on our way to welcoming a healthy and happy baby in May. We were proud parents to be and I was starting to show off my baby bump more as it was growing week by week. Since this was my first pregnancy, everything about it was extra exciting and of course new to my body. I documented my pregnancy on a weekly basis – going for short runs/jogs, doing light workouts and baby bump progress. I had just started shopping around for baby items and planning what essential items we needed for Joen’s arrival.
I remember the first time I felt our Little Lao – the name we had given to Joen at that time since we didn’t know his gender yet – moving inside me. It wasn’t that long ago, probably in weeks 22/23. They weren’t wild or frequent movements, just fluttering and occasional ones. In my excitement, I would call James over and tell him to put his hand on my belly; what a special moment! I distinctly recall laying in bed on the morning of Sunday, January 26 with James’ hand on my belly. We would patiently wait and then giggle when we finally felt our baby moving. I was so connected to this little human growing inside of me and was doing everything to make sure this was a healthy pregnancy for myself and our baby. I was the happiest I had ever been.
The next day, I didn’t feel Joen moving. I brushed it off thinking I just felt something the day before and just because I didn’t feel it didn’t necessarily mean there was reason to be alarmed. On Tuesday I waited to feel something, but still no movement inside, or at least that I could feel. I searched the internet trying to find “what is the normal amount of fetal movement at 24 weeks” – but the answers were not definitive, as it differs from one baby to another. Whether they were accurate or not, articles I read said that fetal movement should become more frequent and regular between 24-26 weeks. I didn’t panic quite yet as I was just entering my 24th week of pregnancy, which could be considered a bit early for regular movement. The next morning, January 29, on the third day without movement, I decided to call my midwife and tell her my concerns. She suggested doing a non-stress test to hear Joen’s heartbeat and give me some peace of mind. I agreed and met her at the closest hospital – Burnaby General. It’s funny how when a significant event takes place in a day, you tend to remember every single detail about that day, like what song was on the radio and the weather that day. On January 29, it was pouring rain as I drove the highway and Bruno Mars was playing on the radio. James met me at the hospital, even though I had told him on the phone not to worry about it since I assumed this was going to be quick check up – I thought I would be in and out in no time. Looking back, I am so thankful he was there with me and I can’t imagine if he wasn’t.
Because it wasn’t a scheduled hospital visit, we were placed in what felt like a drop-in room in the labour and maternity ward at Burnaby General. On her first few attempts, our midwife had difficulty locating a heartbeat so she brought in a nurse and used another Doppler that was supposed to be able to hear the heartbeat in the event the baby was situated behind the placenta. Still no luck. I wasn’t overly concerned yet, because there was still a possibility the baby was positioned facing my back, but my mind was racing through different scenarios of what might be happening. We were then told they were going to order an ultrasound to have a closer look at our baby’s heart. We waited for what felt like forever before a hospital porter arrived and invited me to sit in a wheelchair to go down to the ultrasound room. It was an odd feeling to be sitting in a wheelchair considering I was capable of walking on my own and in my head, everything was fine – we were just having a look at our baby on an ultrasound screen, something that was never a problem before. Still, as the ultrasound technician scanned the anatomy of our baby, I closed my eyes and prayed while crying. I was terrified.
Once the ultrasound was done, I was wheeled back upstairs and waited with James for the results as they were reviewed by the doctor. We were talking quietly and unsuccessfully trying to comfort each other – I kept asking James over and over “what is happening right now”. Our midwife would come in once in awhile to let us know a doctor hadn’t yet reviewed the results from the ultrasound. After 30 gruelling minutes of waiting, our midwife entered the room again and told us the news that nothing could have prepared us for: “The doctor wasn’t able to locate a heartbeat in your baby.”
I was unable to comprehend or register what we were being told. Our unborn baby died? It couldn’t be real. Sure we might read or hear about sad news like this, but it’s not supposed to happen to us. I don’t even think I cried right away because I didn’t believe it. I asked the same questions over and over again, and when the answers didn’t change, it was starting to sink into my numb body that we lost our baby. I was hysterical. James and I crumbled into each other’s body and cried the most painful tears in our lives. The world suddenly became dark in that room and we felt so alone and helpless. There were moments of deafening silence in between our tears. I wanted to be anywhere but here. The news that our baby had died was followed by more devastating news that hit us like another tidal wave, angry and relentless: I was expected to deliver our baby stillborn, something I was not prepared to do. Arrangements were made for me to deliver at BC Women’s Hospital, where we decided we’d be in the best care, but I had to go on a wait list first before being admitted.
I don’t know how, but I managed to drive home from Burnaby General Hospital. Thankfully, it wasn’t a far drive. Our 10 year old golden retriever/lab Elroy knew right away something was wrong and he nuzzled his nose into our laps as we held each other and cried in our living room. James and I braced ourselves before making the most difficult phone call of our lives to let our parents know what had happened. They came over immediately and cried with us. That night, I was so physically exhausted from crying that somehow I fell asleep. I woke up a few times, begging for this to be a dream, the kind where you are so thankful to wake up from. The kind of dream that you wake up from with tears in your eyes because that’s how real it felt. When I woke up throughout the night, I did have tears in my eyes as I held onto my stomach and our baby. But I wasn’t dreaming; nothing in our reality had changed. This was the last night we would spend with Joen at home and in our bed.
We received a phone call early this morning advising us that I could go to BC Women’s at 10:30am. I was still in disbelief and shock upon arriving , but when I walked into the entrance and saw staff standing behind the table and a couple other mothers visibly upset and crying, it hit me – everything just hit me at once. Not only was I unprepared for childbirth – prenatal classes were supposed to be in March – I had to mentally prepare to give birth to and meet our lifeless baby. It was a cruel reality. Life can be so cruel. After scanning the room, I saw a familiar face – my midwife Amy who I was supposed to meet there. She embraced me and said “I’m so sorry Eudora”, and I immediately broke down in her arms.
January 31, 2020, 10:57pm
It’s incredibly amazing and scary how your world can change in just 24 hours.
Just 24 hours ago, I was at the hospital experiencing the most excruciating cramps and contractions as I was being induced into labour. I get sweaty and my heart rate speeds up just thinking about it right now. It’s difficult for me to recall and write about yesterday’s events without tearing up or crying out for Joen. I’m thankful I had my midwives Amy and Emily with me every step of the way, along with our charge nurse – not to mention my biggest supporter, James. When I was first shown the birthing suite in which I would deliver Joen, I remember thinking how ironically comfortable and pleasant it looked, considering this would eventually be a place of grief and sorrow. Some of our family came by to bring us food and spend time with us, although I was probably not the best company. I had no appetite and didn’t feel like talking either. Instead, I was reading a story Amy had shared about another Mom who was in a similar situation as I. She bravely documented her whole experience, and it inspired me to start writing about mine.
Hours later in that same dimly light birthing suite, I lost track of time once Amy administered the first dose of misoprostol. The waiting game began and it was torturous. I literally had to wait for the stimulated labour contractions to kick in. So I sat there, anticipating the pain but unsure of exactly when it would arrive. I remember looking up at the clock once in awhile, and wondering why time seemed to be crawling. Maybe because I badly wanted the labour to be over as quickly as possible. This wasn’t a normal pregnancy where Mom gets to say hello to crying baby. It just wasn’t the same. I was nervous and scared – the pain was something I could endure, but birthing a still baby would take all the mental, emotional and spiritual energy out of me.
As the contractions started to develop, I needed some pain control. I said no to epidural but yes to laughing gas and fentanyl, both which made me drowsy, sleepy and nauseous all at the same time. I took a nap for a couple of hours before the contractions really started to kick in. It was probably around 8pm by then. The pain was exhausting so I climbed into the tub that was in the birthing suite to see if I could relax in warm water. The pain subsided for awhile, but only to return with more intensity, so I dried off and went back onto the bed. My midwives, the charge nurse and James were with me this whole time and assisted me in moving around the room. It wasn’t until late into the evening that I would go into labour, shortly after the third dose of misoprostol was administered. I woke up from another nap, around 11:30pm. I tossed and turned in pain begging for it to be taken away. I was a sweaty mess. Once I was in active labour, probably around 12:30am, things happened very quickly. The birth was as smooth as it could have gone, but the most intense thing I’ve ever had to do. After about half an hour of pushing and thanks to the support and coaching from my small birth team and a LOT of mental strength, Joen Eli Lao came into this world silently and lifeless at 1:04am on January 31, 2020, weighing 665 grams and measuring 33.5cm in length.
James and I spent the majority of the next 15 hours holding Joen, taking photos with and of him, and singing to him, our incredibly beautiful baby boy. We slept for a few hours, James and I on separate beds with Joen next to us in his bassinet cooled with ice to serve the same purpose as a cuddle cot for his precious little body. Thanks to the kind hospital volunteers who spend time knitting small baby accessories, we had a rainbow knitted toque to put on Joen’s soft head and we wrapped him in a blanket that was covered in cartoon frogs – Amy found this in hospital’s storage of baby items. The next morning, our Moms and my sisters came to visit us and had a chance to see Joen and take a few photos with him too. Needless to say, it was an extremely emotional time with hardly any words spoken. Together we admired the little features on his body, his lean yet strong limbs (just like his Mom of course!) and were obsessed with his long and slender fingers, which James likes to think were built like a volleyball player’s.
I would’ve given anything to freeze time and be there forever in that hospital room, just holding and looking at Joen with James by my side.
And now almost 24 hours later, he is no longer in our arms.
I remember every part of his face and every blister on his tiny bruised body as it’s been etched into my memory forever. Joen was perfect in every way. What a blessing he was, and for the short amount of time we had to hold, cuddle and kiss him, he’s already made such a big impact on our lives, which will never ever be the same. We didn’t know we were having a boy until meeting him – the gender reveal was supposed to be February 2. Secretly I thought we might be having a girl but had never really told anyone. Maybe it was the medicine, the relief that the labour was over or maybe it was simply the fact that in that moment I had become a Mom, but when I held my baby in my arms, though he was lifeless and still, I was happy and I smiled as I talked and sang to him and welcomed him into the world. I kissed him over and over again – making sure to be very delicate as his soft body was so fragile – and I never wanted to let him go.
But sadly, I had to. It took every ounce of energy in my already fatigued body. I thought about how Joen’s appearance was changing and had been changing the moment he was born, and I knew I had to say goodbye. We removed his rainbow toque and his frog blanket so we could have them in his memory box, and dressed him in a blue toque and a blue blanket. Our final wish for Joen was to be blessed with peace and love, so we called on our good friend and pastor, Doug, who dropped everything (he was at Missions Fest Vancouver in downtown) and headed over to BC Women’s to be with us. Doug delivered a powerful message in his prayer for Joen that made a stream of tears fall uncontrollably down from my closed eyes. As Doug, James and I squeezed each others hands tight as we stood above Joen, I felt our prayers fill every corner of the room and beyond.
After that, it was time for our final goodbye. James and I didn’t want to feel like we were leaving Joen behind in the hospital room, so I asked the nurse to leave with him first, and she did. And then Joen was gone. I immediately realized that carrying his lifeless body in my arms was better than not carrying him at all. I fell into James’ arms, crying in pain. We sat on the hospital bed in darkness. My world was empty. I looked outside the window and it was pouring rain; the Heavens were crying, because though he was ascended to a better place, Joen wasn’t here on Earth with us anymore. At 5pm on February 1, 2020, we left that hospital room with our overnight bags, broken hearts and empty-handed without our baby.
My heart aches and my eyes fill with tears as I write this, and reading back on this will be difficult to say the least, but I am choosing to write about this experience and my journey so I will never forget when I first became a Mom to our sweet baby boy Joen Eli, whose name means gift of God, ascended. Amidst our grief, I am thankful that we created a perfect baby boy, had the opportunity to meet him, hold him and tell him how much we love him and will cherish him.
Having gone through this loss has naturally made me really appreciate life and reflect on my purpose and how I want to spend my time and energy. It has made me kinder, more emotionally intelligent and more attentive to things around me. I yearn for deeper connections and friendships and have been become much closer to my family. I find comfort in talking to other parents who have gone through similar experiences. Yes, it’s a club I never wished to be a part of, but because it can feel agonizingly lonely at times, talking to other bereaved parents who understand the traumatizing experience of losing a baby reassures me that we are not walking the path of grief and loss alone.
We may never know why we lost Joen and why this happened to us, but we have been told over and over by health care practitioners that it was out of our control. Knowing this makes us feel better in a way, but it also creates more questions, confusion and a never-ending search for meaning in this reality we’ve been handed. But rather than dwell on something out of our control that could potentially create more pain, James and I have chosen to fill our minds and hearts with Joen’s memories and love, which bring more peace to our lives and help us heal.
Gift of God, Ascended.
From the moment we found out I was pregnant in September 2019, we eagerly wondered what kind of parents we would be. We joked about how we wouldn’t get enough sleep when our baby arrived. We were going be tired and groggy, but it would be worth every sleepless night. We were going to read books to him, sing songs to him and bring him with us running, hiking and our travel adventures. We were going to bring Joen to playdates with his baby friends similar in age, watch him grow up and provide him with opportunities to pursue his hopes, dreams and aspirations. Having those future plans and our dreams shattered is the most painful thing for us, next to losing him at 24 weeks.
On January 31, we became parents, but we also lost our baby. Unfortunately, this is now part of our story, but our story doesn’t end here, because it’s just one of many chapters in our life that we’ll embrace dearly. I believe that this loss doesn’t define us. Instead, we will be defined by how we move along this journey of love and grief, how we help, support and connect with other loss parents and how we continue living life after loss while keeping Joen’s memory alive. This is the reality we’ve been given and though it doesn’t make sense and feels unfair, I have to believe he is in a better place now where he will watch over us as our beloved angel. Joen’s short life had a purpose, just like all of our lives do, and I’m convinced his was to bring people together and create deeper and more meaningful relationships with one another and with our world. He has also motivated me to talk about and raise much needed awareness about about miscarriage, stillbirth and infant loss.
Without taking his first breath, Joen has shown us all what love is, how precious life is and how important it is to live our lives to the fullest – even after loss. His memory will keep us going, especially on those days when we feel like we can’t. Because Joen has blessed James and I with the gift of grace, strength, self-compassion, and the ability to both love so strongly and also acknowledge a broken heart, I think in time, we are going to be okay.